Suppose you get out of bed one morning and your will to live doesn't follow you. It hurts to move, but the world expects you to carry on anyway. You look at the Clark Fork River and find it cold and unforgiving. You think of people who have drowned in the river, of dead fish floating to the surface and the politics that led to their poisoning, one bad thought leading interminably to another. The way you felt floating it on an inner tube just months before seems far away. Yet on another day, your feet are light and it's all changed. The snow sparkles in the sun and you can see yourself on the river ice making tracks. Look how hearty the crows are! You're in love with everything. The world can be rearranged in your hands. But it's the same river, isn't it?
And now it's 2012 and you're wondering how you made it this far. When the ball dropped and the calendar rolled over, was your body electric with possibility or did you feel dead inside? Did you love the person you kissed at midnight or was it complicated?
Maybe you were alone. Maybe you were asleep.
It's time to rise and shine.
Here's how I did it.
Remembering Mary Jane
Last September, I wrote a story for the Indy, "Forgetting Mary Jane," about my experiences with marijuana. I wrote it in part because I have a high threshold for humiliation and my art is more important than my dignity. Plus, I didn't want to do any research other than smoking a lot of weed.
I was trying to write about the empty spaces inside of us in a true and heartbreaking way. It was never meant to be a political or moral statement, and I didn't mean to hurt anybody's feelings—but that's what happened. People got really mad. I was prepared to be seen as weak-willed, lazy and gross, but I didn't get to choose how I was perceived. People weren't mad at me for abusing marijuana; they were mad at me for feeling bad about it.
Other people just felt sorry for me. I got several invitations to join 12-step programs, but I'd already blown the whole anonymous thing, hadn't I. People wrote me to say that they saw themselves in the article. Many of them very sensibly asked that I keep their identities secret. I also got a lot of good feedback, but it hardly mattered because the haters were so much louder.
I felt the Jedi force of every pot enthusiast's anger amidst muffled and baseless assurances that it was all a very good thing for me. I imagined men with pitchforks outside my window at night, screaming "Why do you hate people with cancer?!" or offering contrary evidence of pot's unequivocal goodness, such as "I smoke pot all day long and I have a 4.0 and lots of money and a hot girlfriend!" Some of them wore white lab coats and shouted out helpful accusations like "You're bipolar!"
Seeing a stoned and yellow-haired cartoon of myself on every street corner for a week was a trip, to put it mildly. I'm a big-time narcissist, so this was just the kind of reality I would create for myself. It's not at all normal. I think everyone should try it.
Meanwhile, I prowled around outside the Golden Rose, ravenous and desperate, as usual. My mother says her spirit animal is a hawk; every time she sees one, it's good luck. I think my spirit animal is a partied-out fraternity brother, because in those first few weeks of September, they were lumbering through the night to haunt me. There was the man in a torn Billabong T-shirt, his hand stretched out in front of him and crossing Broadway with a limp. He seemed to be calling out for me but who knows what he was saying. For a second I thought I'd stumbled into a teenage boy's fantasy and this was the zombie apocalypse. On the way home, I had to step over another one sprawled across the sidewalk. I thought about calling for help, but the corpse was breathing normally and smiling, with a full, open can of Old Milwaukee sitting calmly on the pavement next to him. Imagine the mind that thought grabbing that last can was a good idea and the vibrant, beating heart of the boy whose entire life had led up to that moment. I thought about taking the beer, but you know. Germs.
A nearly full moon hung overhead as I made my way up the three flights of stairs to my Northside attic apartment. On a night like that, it was easy to imagine that the house was a monster and I lived in its brain. Outside, the train ground its metal teeth something awful. I looked around and couldn't find anything I liked.
I still had to go to work every day as Molly Llama, calendar editor. Remember in Jerry Maguire when Tom Cruise writes a mission statement and slips it in all his co-workers' mailboxes before he has time to think it over? Up the circulation to around 30,000 and replace inspirational with "Hi, I'm a drug addict" and that was me every day at the office. The Indy is a hip place to work and all, but still.
It was time to put down the bong and pitch Robert, the head editor, some more story ideas. I don't even think real journalists enjoy pitching stories, and I'm a fake journalist, so you can only imagine. Robert talks fast and tends to take ideas in directions you would have never thought were relevant or sane. He doesn't want you to write about the forest; he wants you to find one tree in the forest and then knit a sweater around its trunk.
I pitched a few forest ideas that met with lukewarm enthusiasm. We were both getting bored.
"Come on," he said. "What else have you got?"
I looked out the window and thought about the frat-boy zombies and marijuana boogie men crawling through the window of my haunted house, and about my increasingly delusional notions that I'd somehow made the whole world up in my head.
"I don't know," I said, "how about magic?"
"Crackerjack idea!" Robert said, or something like that. (I'm paraphrasing.)
Magic could go a long way toward healing my wounded heart. I couldn't bear to write anything painful and I was already an avid moon worshipper who owned multiple spell-casting books. It wasn't a stretch.
"I think this is going to be a really therapeutic project for me," I said.
But it had been nine seconds and Robert was already drinking a green smoothie, yelling at reporters through his office window and arranging a conference call all at once, because that's the kind of crackerjack editor he is. "Therapeutic?" he said. "I don't care about that. Just write me a good story."
Poof. I'm a witch.
I'd set my experiment to correspond with the lunar cycle, beginning on the full moon of September 12 and ending 30 days later with the next full moon, in October. First, I'd make a list of things I wanted to manifest. Then I'd cast spells and work hard to reorganize my thinking. I'd forego skepticism and practice pathological optimism. I'd ask the universe for things and fully expect to get them. At the end of the experiment, like a scientist, I'd come back and show you everything the universe had given me.
September 12 was one of those full moons that poked out yellow and fuzzy through the clouds, but only sometimes. Since my overarching quest was for magic itself, I chose an incantation from my book, Moon Spells, aimed at "promoting psychic abilities and invoking the power within.
I had to cast a circle and face north. I used the rocks that I collect on walks and store in a Crown Royal bag to build a circle around me on the floor of my apartment. The spell called for odd-colored candles: purple, orange, silver and white, and would you believe it, I had all of them on hand. Other things the spell required: a bell or gong, incense, deep-purple felt and red wine. Each item is designed to engage the senses. For the bell, I plucked the high E string of my guitar and dutifully said out loud, "I hear the power." I smelled the incense and said, "I smell the power." Tasted the red wine: "I taste the power." Caressed the Crown Royal bag and said, "I feel the power"—and here's the humiliating kicker: As instructed, I raised my hands to the ceiling and ended the spell (by the power of Grayskull?) declaring, "I am the power!"
The book suggests that after you blow out your candles and step out of the circle, you should take a few more celebratory sips of your wine, but to really make sure, I went ahead and finished off the bottle.
Figuring out what I wanted to manifest was a little harder. You have to know what you want, and harder still, you have to believe you deserve it. I looked around my filthy attic apartment with the weirdly shaped rooms and low, slanted ceilings. I was single and alone. There was no oven in the kitchen. My bathroom had no sink and no mirror. What do you get the girl who has everything?
I want what people want: a career—in my case, to write and teach for a living. Someday I'd like a husband or something like it. Probably not kids, but a dog, maybe?
I was thinking too big. I didn't want or need any of that stuff to happen right away. The idea was to focus on quick manifestation, tasks that were achievable in the next 30 days.
I imagined my many hooded sweatshirts picking themselves off the floor, folding mid-air and flying onto their shelves. Maybe little mops would sweep through, scrubbing surfaces and making it look like someone other than a dead person lived there. I wrote "clean apartment" on the list and tried to believe that might happen.
Next, I wrote, "Find a new boyfriend" but it looked laughable and far-fetched, even with the weight of the universe on my side. The whole list was complicated further by the fact that I was leaving Missoula in October to go to a writer's colony in the woods of New Hampshire and had no idea if I'd be coming back. I remembered with horror one of the last things my ex had said to me, "Be careful with your love. It's like a loaded fucking gun." I crossed off "Find a boyfriend" and replaced it with "Sexual healing," which probably just meant "masturbate per usual," and from there it all seemed much more attainable.
When I was a little girl, on every birthday cake and shooting star, every single time, I wished for one million dollars. What was the grown-up equivalent of one million dollars, adjusted for inflation?
I settled on "happiness." You're not supposed to be so vague, but I couldn't think of any other way to put it. I shut my eyes and tried to imagine what happiness looked like. My mind was a blank.
My list became a free-associated parade: acceptance letter from The New Yorker, a hotplate, Converse All Stars, psychic powers, my car continuing to work, gemstones, Kombucha. At the top of the list, I wrote "Free ukulele" as the ultimate test. I wanted a ukulele to come out of nowhere and I wanted it to be free. If I could make that happen with my mind, I could do just about anything.
'Tis a far, far better thing doing stuff for other people—right? I once overheard someone say that there are angels floating around everywhere, eager to do our bidding, if we'd only think to ask for their help. They're especially happy to help you help others. But it's hard to know what, specifically, your friends want and need, apart from what all of us want (love, one million dollars). How often do you even ask yourself that?
I asked my friend Richard. He said he wanted a big-screen TV and to get rid of his car. I thought I was off to a good start until he added, "But this isn't going to work because there's no such thing as magic."
I saw that I'd made a mistake by letting Richard in on the process. His doubt would sully the spell. If I were going to wish things for my friends, I'd have to try to anticipate their needs and do it without their knowing. For this, I really started swinging for the fences: Cory finds a good band to play with. Brett makes friends in Kansas. Mental health for Josh. Men fall hopelessly in love with Alice. Obama passes the American Jobs Bill. Sally the dog heals her wounded foot.
Making a list is easy enough. Believing that any of it is possible is harder. I don't think I realized just how cynical my thinking was until I took the time to shine a flashlight on it. My brain is a veritable museum of self-defeating slogans and deep-seeded beliefs like "There's no place for me in this world," "I'm the size of a rhinoceros and therefore undeserving of real love," "There's never any money," "Life is incredibly painful" and the ultimate: "Nothing matters and nothing ever works out."
Think about it, gentle reader. What horrible, limiting beliefs do you repeat to yourself again and again and again? And how's that working out for you?
Weird things started to happen.
Some of my spells came true.
One thing I'd asked for was "Forgiveness from Jack." Jack is a character from "Forgetting Mary Jane." I'd written it just like that, even though that's not his real name. Still, he was sore about the way I'd portrayed him. It was all true, but perhaps indelicate. There's more to people than the drugs they dabble in, but non-fiction is manipulative. In the business, we call it "lies of omission." More than anything, I probably should have told him I was doing it.
I tried to smooth things over, but Jack just kept repeating, "You threw me under the bus."
He sent an email to the editor with the subject line "I am Jack's bitter sense of resentment."
"That's actually pretty witty," Robert said.
"I know," I said. "He's fascinating. Why do you think I keep writing about him?"
Jack's email to Robert said I was among his worst customers ever, paying in crumpled bills and coming up short besides. Late-night demands. General rudeness. In my defense, Jack charges too much and lives in an inconvenient part of town.
The last text he'd sent me had come shortly after he discovered the article. It said, "Wow, you suck."
At least now, for once, we had something besides just weed in common. Thanks to me, we both knew what notoriety felt like.
I thought I'd never talk to Jack again, and it was a bummer. Ours is a dysfunctional relationship, but a life worth living requires a few good frenemies, and when Jack is gone, I miss him. About a week after I cast the spell, he texted me at 1 in the morning: "Hi."
So there it was. Forgiveness from Jack. My first act of magic.
There's a bartender who used to work at the Golden Rose named Joe. Forever clad in basketball shorts, he'd slap the bar twice when he handed you a drink and was always prompt and courteous about it, even though we were dumb and demanding customers and even though he doesn't drink. I said to Ted, my good friend, one of the best writers I've ever known and for whom I wished a better job and more money and for his novel to be published—I said, "Ted. Look at how great Joe is. Can't you see?" I used a finger to point at the otherworldly elegance in the way Joe wiped the bar down with a wet rag.
"What," Ted said. "He's just an ordinary dude in basketball shorts. He's a pretty good bartender."
On the slip of wishes, I'd written "Something good for Joe," because who knew what Joe wanted. That night, Joe told me that he'd put in his two weeks' notice, that he was going to go into physical therapy and eventually be a U.S. Marshall, which is not just a cop but a super-cop. That didn't sound good to me, but it sounded like something Joe wanted. Later that night, instead of climbing over the bar and sticking my tongue in Joe's mouth, I went home and crossed "Something good for Joe" off the list.
My friend Mackenzie tore his hand open from rope-burn while rehabilitating a horse, and that same week his partner, Sarah, messed up her ankle rock climbing. The two of them lumbered around town like prizefighters, as though they'd turned their fists on one another. I asked the universe to heal them, and it's true, they did get better.
"Of course it's your magic that healed us," they both agreed.
"Yes," I said, dutifully optimistic and ignoring basic tenets of biology. "Angels came down from heaven and healed your broken bodies because I asked them to."
In those first few days of the experiment I was still wading unhappily through life. I'd barely smoked any weed since my pot piece came out, in large part because all of my dealers had blacklisted me, but I drank a lot to make up for it. During that window, if someone had handed me crack I probably would have smoked it. I had a lot of self-destructive tendencies but luckily not a lot of ambition to carry them through.
Friday night, September 16, we all got drunk at the VFW per usual. We after-partied at Mackenzie and Sarah's and nothing particularly bad happened. I talked loud and said stupid things but so did everyone else. Still, I rode home hating myself in a fresh, new way. I cried in my filthy apartment. I cried some more and smoked the very last of my pot, which—hey, Missoula, do you have any familiarity with pot? It has this uncanny way of making a person stop crying.
I didn't hear any whispering voices in my ear. There were no visions. But the next morning, I was struck with the sudden conviction that I had to stop equivocating, that there was no such thing as moderation for me and if I ever wanted to seriously accomplish everything I was meant to in this life, I had to stop drinking and doing drugs forever and ever and ever. I made my resolution on Saturday, September 17 before noon, and then my hangover and I biked to a howling football stadium to cover the Griz game for the Indy's football feature. It didn't occur to me that suddenly and inexplicably kicking my decade-long addiction just days after I'd gotten down on my knees and asked the heavens for help had anything to do with magic until much later.
Ways of looking at a bluebird
October 12 came and I decided my magic experiment had been a bust. A few things on the list came true, mostly when it came to other people, but so much of it went unanswered. Being sober felt like being trapped in a room with stabbing fluorescent lights. I had a hard time remembering to stay positive. The month felt clumsy and realistic, like all the others. On October 15, I left Missoula.
Now, many weeks later, I can see it more clearly: 30 days is nothing.
In November, I went to the MacDowell Colony on an eight-week fellowship, to be a captive in the woods with "the freedom to create." MacDowell, it turned out, was a great place to be a witch. I worked in a little stone hut where every day the staff brought me a picnic basket. I wrote about 40,000 words of what I might someday rearrange into a novel. I meditated, a lot. I logged my first 90 days of sobriety. You might think being in the woods made it easier, but it didn't. MacDowell was like a special kind of rehab where everybody is allowed to drink and smoke but me. I felt Midwestern, poor and painfully shy.
The prophetic dreams I asked for in September didn't arrive until I started sleeping in the colony's convent-like dormitory. There, every night before I fell asleep, I asked the spirits to tell me something. "Why did I have to stop using? It doesn't seem fair. Why am I the only one who's not allowed to have fun? Why is it so hard and when is it going to get easier?"
I dreamt about Charles Bukowski's poem "Bluebird." In the dream, the poem was paraphrased to "There's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out." Bukowski tells the bird to go away. He says, "Be quiet, I don't want anyone to see you." He pours whiskey on it and blows smoke in its face.
My spirit guides are snarky. "The lesson is obvious," they said. "You invited us in, didn't you? You said, 'I want to be happy.' Well, this is how it's done. Stop murdering your bluebird."
"But it still hurts," I said. "I'm lonely, and I don't know how to live like this. It's like there's a pane of glass separating me from everybody else. How much longer is this going to last?"
Naturally, this is a dramatization. Even in dreams, the spirits don't use voices to talk to me and the images are sketchy. I see the bluebird a little, flailing and wet and then shaking dry her feathers, but it's more like a feeling. And then the answer to how much longer comes in a dream hug, roughly translated: "A while."
So now I'm in my old bedroom at my mother's house in Waterford, Mich. I'll be here for the next four months while I teach composition at my old community college. Something tells me I'll be back in the spring with flowers, pleading, "Missoula, forgive me. I don't know what I was thinking. Take me back." Michigan feels like a way-station now, but the layover seems necessary.
There are some rules and caveats for thinking your way into a life lived with purpose and precision, where you have everything you ever wanted and the world is a paradise because you created it.
You have to get your brain buzzing right.
It's not enough to vaguely hope for things. And it takes wisdom to even know what you want. Once you know, you have to get into the correct vibrational frequency to reach out and grab it. If you want a pony, you'd better get a stable first. If you want the angels to talk to you, you need to clear a space in your brain for them. Remember to say "please" and "thank you." If you want the universe to be kind to you, you have to start by being kind to the universe.
Remember, too, that built into this philosophy is a convenient, self-preserving paradox: if you don't believe in magic, it can't work. If it's not working for you, it could be that you just didn't believe enough.
I've gone looking for God on a spiritual retreat, where we took a vow of silence and did nothing but eat, sleep and meditate for 10 days, and I didn't see Him once. Didn't even catch a glimpse. I expected something extraordinary to happen but it turned out to be the opposite. Your heart slows down and the chatter in your mind becomes a low hum. If anything, it's more ordinary.
The retreat taught me that we orient ourselves in the world entirely via sensations in the body. I saw clearly for the first time that there's no real there out there. We imagine the world to be a certain way, we react, and it generates sensations of pleasure, pain and the murky spaces between. For a few days afterward, I was able to hold onto the knowledge that my thoughts were directly generating my experience. But the matrix is distracting. I stopped meditating regularly. One day, I woke up cranky about the way the world had wronged me and eager to blame it on anyone but myself, and I knew that I'd lost it. Two years later, I'm only just getting it back.
Meditation is the single best way I know to temper the dragons in my head without drugs. I recommend that everybody do it all day, every day. Or, you know, whenever you can find the time.
It's all your fault.
If you're going to sign on to the idea that your thoughts create your reality, you'll have to take the good with the bad.
I still haven't fully learned how to reconcile this one. Do you want to be the girl in the flowing skirt telling the mother of an 18-month-old who is dying of leukemia that her son brought the illness on himself with his bad attitude? Me either!
There was a classic moment with the Dalai Lama on "Larry King Live" shortly after Hurricane Katrina when he tried to explain to the audience, in broken English, that the hurricane was society's fault, because of built-up karmic energy. It was not well received.
Just remember that your thoughts are powerful and learn to use them responsibly, I guess.
Frame your requests in the positive.
You're probably already a brilliant manifester without even realizing it. When you focus on lack, you'll find your life lacking. I know, it's a favorite refrain of self-help books—but have you ever been a jealous girlfriend? Your boyfriend is going to leave you for a prettier girl; you just know it. You see these prettier girls everywhere. He's a flirt. One day, he leaves you for a prettier girl, and—aha!—you were right all along. It's because you're so powerful. You threw your entire life-force energy into it and you made her out of clay.
The lesson here is that you have to work hard to accentuate the positive. In other words, whatever you do, don't think about an elephant.
I tried telling Jack that his cynicism created a maelstrom that forced me to betray him, by the way. I don't know if he bought it.
Really, you're doing all the work.
Take the hotplate I wished for: Did I think the countertop was going to give birth to a hotplate if I meditated on it long enough?
Oh, I got the hotplate all right. First, I wrote down that I needed a hotplate. A week or two later, I went to a thrift store and bought one using dollar bills out of my wallet.
There's something therapeutic about the simple act of taking a moment to think about what you really want and need. Just writing it down gives it weight. You don't need to light candles or throw pennies at the moon. Instead of magic, you can call it goal-setting.
If the angels don't want you to have it, then you can't.
Sometimes our short-term wants don't mesh up with our long-term needs. That's because the universe knows more than we do. Remember the boyfriend who left us for the clay woman we created? Remember how much our heart burned with certainty that he was our one-and-only and that our lives were nothing without him? Remember how wrong that turned out to be?
You have to take the long view and trust that things are going to work out. As horrifying as it was to see my face all over town when I published my pot story, weeks later it hardly mattered. Those same pages were used to line a rabbit's cage. A hundred years after that, the paper will have turned to dust and we'll all be dead.
When it came to the stuff on my list, most of what I didn't get were material things. Meanwhile, I clocked 26 days of sobriety that I never asked for and barely even knew I wanted.
Most disappointing was not getting the free ukulele. I thought I did everything right. I dreamed of Hawaiian instruments. I thought about how a ukulele would feel in my hands and I promised to learn how to play well when one came to me. I even tried to help the spell along by posting a Craigslist ad with the heading "Wanted: Free Magical Ukulele."
On a long enough timeline, maybe I'll understand why the angels decided to be such dillweeds about it. Right now, I'm still bitter. I mean, seriously, guys: They're not that expensive.
Where's my fucking ukulele?